English for who? English for what?

As far as I understand: colonization basically entailed Westerners coming to non-Western countries and saying that the way non-Western people did things was backward and primitive. People were then introduced to the Westerners religion,cultural practices,languages and education systems: a project meant to ‘civilize’ them. As a result, people came to value the ideas of the West and began to abandon or reject the religious practices and parts of the cultural practices which were not accepted by the colonizers.

That’s my super-basic understanding of colonization. I know it was much more complex, but I’m trying to keep this post short.

Botswana, in the era of colonization, was technically a British protectorate and not a colony. But the effect was not that different to colonization. In 1966, Botswana became independent and thus, my nation was able to decide on how they did things. We managed to set up a decent economy and we did relatively well on our own. But I wonder if we have really been ‘decolonized’…

I guess I always wondered this but it’s only now that it’s really becoming tangible. I remember reading in some class when I was much younger that English was the official language of Botswana [and many other African countries]. I was confused by this.  I knew that people in my country  spoke both English and Setswana but younger-me thought…logically…that the official language of the Tswana nation would be …Setswana? No? …..okay :/. *insert picture of confused, pre-teen me in a social studies class*

Fast forward to current me, I moved to South Africa for school, to a place where many people speak isiXhosa. Yeah…it was a tough adjustment.I was in this new environment, feeling super isolated because I couldn’t communicate in isiXhosa. I would have liked to get to know a lot of my peers but they were comfortable speaking their mother tongue and at the time, I didn’t know how to meet them halfway. Despite my frustration at the ‘language barrier’, I still thought  it would have been strange for me, a guest in their home, to insist that they change their ways to suit me. So I just awkwardly went about my business in English since that’s all [I thought] I could do :/

Because I didn’t think I had a right to have amaXhosa speak English to cater to me, it baffles me that people are so militant when it comes to others speaking English. Sometimes it’s funny. It can be fun to laugh at our ‘engrish’, our struggles with the language. But it’s not always laughter at ourselves. Sometimes, it’s laughter at someone’s failure to grasp the language or laughter at someone’s failure to speak English with the ‘right’ accent. And what’s implicit in these sort of responses is the idea that speaking English as if you’ve been practising it since you were in the womb provides social capital. It’s an ability that our society values.

Someone on Rhodes Confessions [like I said, I’m a fan] asked the administrators why they didn’t post confessions in languages other than English. The administrators replied saying that this would isolate a big sector of campus and that we were a “multiracial, multicultural tertiary institution”.They continued to advise the confessor to just use people’s grammar policing as a way of improving their English. “You will be better for it,” they said. *ultimate side-eye*

Now, this is not quite a criticism of the page administrators but it’s a perfect example of what I am talking about. English has become such a norm that when asked to make allowances for other languages, our first instinct is to say, “This is just the way it is. If you just get used to it, it will improve your life”. We don’t say,  “Yeah, that’s a good idea. We are after all in the Eastern Cape. Send us  confessions in isiXhosa!” or “Hmmm, good point. Maybe we should try to get a Xhosa person to help us monitor confessions and we can be more inclusive”.

The prevalence of demands that everyone should speak English allows the language a superiority over other languages that I don’t think it deserves. Why, particularly since we are not in England, is the ability to speak English particularly so important to us? Can you imagine people in England judging or looking down on others for not speaking proper Chichewa or for not being fluent enough in isiZulu?

There is the argument that if everyone speaks the same language [read English], then communication will be easier. And that’s true. But at what cost must we make communication easier? And why do we have to make communication easier by speaking English? If you are in Botswana and you don’t speak Setswana, why should Batswana [those you found there] accommodate you? Surely, it would help to learn Setswana. By a stroke of luck, I had to learn isiXhosa at a beginner’s level and although I am far from fluent [or kinda terrible], learning the language was helpful. It made sense. I am a guest in the Eastern Cape and by my personal principles, it just made sense to respect the ways of the host.

This insistence on English as a mode of communication in Southern Africa is strange to me. It’s eerily reminiscent of an era not too long ago ,where guests would tell their hosts that their way of doing things was wrong and that the hosts should change.

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